IS HALF A GOSPEL GOOD ENOUGH?
Written by Doug Ponder on June 23, 2013
Missing Half the Gospel
If you’re ever been running late to see a move in the theater, you know from experience how hard it can be to figure what is going on in the story. It’s hard to figure out because the beginning of the movie introduces the central plot of the story along with most of the major characters. Now imagine showing up late to the movie and walking out early, well before the film’s ending is revealed. Having seen only the middle bits of the movie, you’d be hard pressed to make much sense of anything.
That is exactly how many people have heard, and presented, the good news about Jesus. Far too often Christians leave out the beginning and the end of the gospel message, only catching the middle bits of the story. That means that others might hear you tell them that they are sinful and need to be forgiven, but they don’t have a clue about what sin is, or why God cares to forgive sinners in the first place.
Furthermore, this kind of approach to the gospel makes it seem like the basic message of the Christian faith has nothing to do with this life except for preparing you for the next one. That kind of thinking turns the gospel into a “get out of hell free” card, and it turns the world into a taxi cab that good for nothing except carrying souls to heaven. But when the gospel ceases to be the supremely relevant, all-encompassing message that shapes our lives from start to finish, then passion for the gospel inevitably will wane. As Dorothy Sayers, author and close friend of C. S. Lewis once said, “How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”
The problem doesn’t lie with the message of the gospel. The problem lies with our presentation of the gospel message. We have shortened the gospel to only the middle parts of sin and our need for redemption, leaving out the larger framework of the story that makes sense of both sin and salvation. Instead of the biblical picture of sin and salvation, we think of sin as violating random rules and we see salvation as escape from the earth. Neither of these are true, and both of them are the result of an abbreviated gospel.
Sin as Idolatry and Rebellion Against the Good
When we broaden the gospel to include the beginning and the end of the story, we see that God created people in his image who would find their joy, satisfaction, peace, and happiness in him. God doesn’t do this because he is egocentric. He does this because he is the standard and the source of everything good in the universe—love, justice, wisdom, power, joy, beauty, etc. Just like a sunbeam is traced back to the sun itself, so also every pleasure and every good thing in this life finds its ultimate origin in the God who loved us and made us to know him and delight in him forever. Our problem is that instead of delighting in God, celebrating his wisdom, and listening to what he says, we have turned our backs on him. We are sinners by nature and by choice, people who routinely try to go our own way, ignoring God or betraying him in the process.
Seen in this context, God’s commands are not random rules or harsh requirements. No, they are loving wisdom that God gives us to protect us and to point us back to him. For example, suppose you want a world where women are respected not raped and abused, a world where there are no single-parent homes, a world where there is no need for abortion because every child is wanted, and a world where AIDS and other STDs are virtually unheard of. How will you get there? God’s commands that restrict sex to the lifelong covenant love between a husband and wife would eliminate those problems immediately. You see? God’s commands are for our good. We’re just too stupid to realize it and too arrogant to obey what he asks us to obey.
Salvation as Redemption for Mission
Including the beginning and the end of the story also helps us to understand what salvation is. God made us to live on the earth. It is our home, both now and forever. The end of the Bible is not that we go to live with God in a cloudy paradise, but that God himself comes to live with us on the renewed earth (Rev. 21:1-5). This reminds us that salvation isn’t God’s emergency evacuation plan. Rather, salvation is God’s plan for redemption or liberation.
The difference between evacuation and redemption/liberation is enormous. The former sees the ultimate goal as escape, the latter sees the ultimate goal as freedom. Jesus did not come to help us escape, he came to set us free “so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:8). He came to set us free from our selfishness, too, so that we would “no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised for our sake” (2 Cor. 5:15).
Christians as Ministers of Reconciliation
This means that to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, means learning to see ourselves as people that God has redeemed for a reason, and that reason is spelled out in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
We have been called to “the ministry of reconciliation,” which means the ministry of embodying the message of good news, the gospel, in how we talk and how we live. God makes his appeal through us so that others might come to know him and be reconciled to him through the work of Jesus on their behalf.
The ministry of reconciliation is a “whole life” calling. It isn’t something that we do on Sunday mornings or in small slivers of our life. God calls us to embody the message of the gospel with words and actions in every area of our lives. Below are four practical questions that help us to discern what it looks like to be ministers of reconciliation:
1. What is wrong? What needs opposition or resistance?
2. What is confused? What needs correction or clarification?
3. What is good? What can be celebrated and supported?
4. What is missing? What needs creating or fulfilling?
These are questions that we can ask in every major area of our lives: our relationships (who you know), our jobs (what you do), and our neighborhood (where you live). As we ask these questions of our lives, seeking to obey the commands of Scripture as we trust in Jesus and rely upon the Spirit in prayer, God shows us what it looks like for things to be “in Richmond, as they are in heaven.” Thus God calls us to join his work of renewal, colonizing Richmond with the life of heaven (Jer. 29:7; Matt. 6:9-10).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.